Real or fake? Audiences auto-tuned in

Joaquin Phoenix (left, with David Letterman) toyed with being a drugged-out rapper in the film “I’m Still Here.’’ Then he confessed it was all a ruse. Joaquin Phoenix (left, with David Letterman) toyed with being a drugged-out rapper in the film “I’m Still Here.’’ Then he confessed it was all a ruse. (Jeffrey R. Staab/Cbs)
By Geoff Edgers
Globe Staff / December 26, 2010

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You ever read Phil Spector’s tweets? Sure, the “Wall of Sound’’ producer is cooling his heels in a California prison until at least around 2028 for killing a C-movie actress. But that hasn’t kept him from expounding on his favorite players (“Musically, Ike was by far the greater of the Turners’’) and letting us into even his most personal moments (“Sitting on the edge of my bed tickling my own feet’’).

Only one problem: That isn’t Phil Spector. It’s a fake. But so what? The tweets are amusing and perfect and, face it, they could be Phil Spector. I mean, they sound like him.

This was life in 2010, when it was hard to tell the difference between real and fake or figure out whether it mattered. With Heidi Montag’s 10-procedure plastic-surgery orgy upping the ante for remodeled looks, with “reality’’ shows glutting the TV landscape, with a series of documentary-style films (“Exit Through the Gift Shop,’’ “Catfish,’’ “I’m Still Here’’) raising questions about truthiness, and with Sarah Palin (touting her “Alaska’’ show, a second book, and daughter Bristol on “Dancing With the Stars’’) the biggest political star in the firmament, Americans seemed to be saying: We don’t care if it’s true, we don’t care if it’s real, we just want to be entertained.

Consider how far we’ve rolled over for Auto-Tune, the pitch-sweetening tool once meant to be hidden, now merely taken for granted. Two years ago, Kanye West’s apparent Auto-Tune malfunction during “Love Lockdown’’ on “Saturday Night Live’’ sparked a debate over how much electronic help the rapper got in the studio. If it happened today, it’s hard to imagine we’d raise an eyebrow.

How much do we love Auto-Tune? Enough that “Auto-Tune the News’’ went from YouTube sensation to the Billboard Hot 100. Enough that Glee Karaoke, with pitch correction, was reportedly the No. 1 music app in 21 countries.

You know the idea that truth is stranger than fiction? This year, we wanted our truth heavily dusted with fiction. We embraced the synthetic, hybrid, and absurd. Conan O’Brien, exiled from “The Tonight Show,’’ recorded a live album, with Jack White joining in. The American Repertory Theater’s “Donkey Show’’ smashed all sorts of attendance records, even as local theater-lovers debated whether it was legitimate art worthy of the Harvard-based company’s esteemed tradition or a liquor-soaked bachelorette party. Joaquin Phoenix threatened to become a drugged-out rapper, which we seemed to care about even though we knew it was a put-on, and then, too soon, he confessed it was a ruse, which is when we stopped caring. Did he listen to the Hollywood insiders who speculated that the “self-destructive’’ film would kill his real career? He shouldn’t have. We’re into second, third, and fourth chances. Even Mel Gibson might get another chance.

As always, the year also saw a number of high-profile exits and entrances. Nationally, 2010 marked the end of Larry King, Brooks & Dunn, and Simon Cowell on “American Idol.’’ The shows “Lost’’ and “24’’ also checked out for good: a one-two punch for TV watchers in May.

Locally, the biggest news was the November opening of the Art of the Americas Wing at the Museum of Fine Arts, a dramatic expansion that came after 10 years of effort and $504 million in fund-raising. The results were universally praised, even as critics noted gaps in the museum’s collection. Around the corner, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, well past the $130 million mark on its own fund-raising campaign, pushed forward on its building project, an expansion designed by the Italian architect Renzo Piano. It is set to open in early 2012.

There were changings of the guard in the art world: Curator Helen Molesworth hopped from the Harvard Art Museums, which had put its plans for a contemporary-art museum on hold, to the Institute of Contemporary Art. Jen Mergel, an associate curator at the ICA, headed to the MFA to become senior curator of contemporary art. At MIT’s List Visual Arts Center, the first exhibition from curator Joao Ribas (hired in 2009) was a Frances Stark survey hailed as an auspicious beginning.

The big news on the theater scene was centered downtown, on lower Washington Street. Former ART executive director Robert Orchard launched ArtsEmerson: The World on Stage, a program of ambitious theatrical offerings at the newly renovated Paramount Center and Emerson’s existing Cutler Majestic Theatre. In November, Suffolk University’s completed renovation of the Modern Theatre completed the block revival started in 2004 with the renovation of the Opera House.

In classical music, Carole Charnow left Opera Boston for the Children’s Museum. David Angus took over as artistic director of Boston Lyric Opera. And at the Boston Symphony Orchestra, it only seemed as if a new maestro had come to town. James Levine, sidelined for months with his latest health ailment, reclaimed the podium. For how long? This was the year that the BSO and other members of the music community allowed themselves to publicly question the music director’s future and speculate on the notion of a post-Levine BSO.

In pop music, a series of grand collaborations (Lady Gaga/Beyonce, Danger Mouse/James Mercer, David Byrne/Fatboy Slim) pumped new life into a flattening industry. As for the old? Aerosmith continued to feud before reaching a semi-truce. Keith Richards mocked Mick Jagger in his autobiography. And the Beatles hit iTunes, which mattered at least to Steve Jobs.

Paul Harding of Georgetown, a former drummer in the local rock band Cold Water Flat, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction with “Tinkers,’’ a lyrical debut about a dying grandfather put out by the tiniest of publishers.

The October death of rock promoter and raconteur Billy Ruane sparked a special night of mourning at the Middle East that brought out multiple generations of scenesters and spoke to a larger issue. Where is the scene? Today, an ever-changing slate of bands vie for the shrinking music-industry pie.

One response to the hard new realities in pop culture? Crowd-funding sprang to life. Musicians, designers, and filmmakers flocked to Kickstarter, a website created in 2009 by a bunch of Brooklynites to serve as a funding platform. Kickstarter helped locals ranging from the poppy Russians to goth-singer Marissa Nadler and, just before Christmas, ushering in its most successful project, a $941,558 campaign to create a watch base for the iNano.

Facebook was far from new in 2010, but this may have been the year it came into its own. The film “The Social Network’’ was a critical and commercial hit, and Time named Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg its “Man of the Year’’ at the same time much of our behavior seemed to be filtered through his creation.

We could be friends with anyone (world-famous groupie Bebe Buell! Master documentarian Errol Morris!). With ease, we could track down an ex-boyfriend, keep tabs on gossipy soccer moms, or catch our tweener posting inappropriate photos. We could even break the law — or be caught doing so. (Just Google “Facebook’’ and “arrest’’ for a few colorful examples.)

Naturally there was a backlash. How delightful to have late-night TV host Jimmy Kimmel call for “National UnFriend Day’’? There was some grumbling over “The Social Network,’’ too. The movie was ostensibly based on the real story of Facebook’s origin, but screenwriter Aaron Sorkin made it clear he refused to sacrifice his story-telling chops for truth.

Zuckerberg went so far as to call the film “fiction.’’

Fact or fiction? Hey, whatever works.

Geoff Edgers can be reached at